Libya's Civil War: The Limits of People Power

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Roberto Schmidt / AFP / Getty Images

Libyan rebels take positions near Ras Lanuf, March 9.

The huge plume of black smoke rising above oil refinery in the rebel-held city of Ras Lanuf, the result of air strikes Wednesday by the Libyan government, seemed to mark an ominous escalation in what has all the makings of a protracted Libyan civil war. Though the country's spontaneous democratic revolution made lightning progress in liberating a large swath of the eastern Libya from the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and took the town of Ras Lanuf several days ago, it's untrained volunteer militia has since balked in the face of the well-equipped remnants of the Libyan army that has stayed loyal to Gaddafi. Most importantly, the rebels lack armor and air support, and have been pinned down by government attack helicopters, fighter jets, and bombers. The attack on the oil refinery today suggests Gaddafi's willingness to use his air superiority to target the country's infrastructure in rebel-held territory, whatever the cost.

The rebel government, located just a few hours drive from Ras Lanuf in Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, used the refinery attack to highlight what they say is the need for immediate international intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Libya. "We believe that the international community won't stand by and let this regime annihilate its people," said Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the National Libyan Council, the provisional rebel government. The council also suggested that if attacks on Libya's oil infrastructure continue, there would be both economic and environmental consequences for the whole world. And should the international community fail to act, the revolutionary government itself would begin procuring the necessary weapons to fight Gaddafi's army. "We have the money, and we don don't expect any country to refuse our people assistance in defending themselves," said Ghoga.

But behind the scenes, the rebel government appears to be less sanguine about their chances for survival without international intervention. "The No-Fly Zone is crucial," one rebel official told TIME. "Without it, they're just going to keep killing us." And the National Libyan Council appears divided over political alternatives to carrying on an against-the-odds military struggle whatever the costs. In an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday, former Justice Minister current head of the National Libyan Council Mustafa Abdel-Jalil that he was in negotiations and offered Gaddafi 72 hours to leave Libya with guarantees of safe passage. But Ghoga, speaking officially on behalf of the council, said that there would be no negotiations with the regime, and no immunity would be given to Gaddafi. "No one has the right to deny justice to the victims of this regime," he said on Tuesday.

Regardless of where the rebels stand, Gaddafi is pushing forward. Besides air strikes in the east, Gaddafi's forces are continuing a brutal siege of the pro-revolution city of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, using heavy weapons on an apparently lightly-armed civilian population, according to what few news reports emerge from the city. And in another rambling televised address Wednesday morning, Gaddafi once again accused al-Qaeda of orchestrating the uprising, and threatened to fight any country that participates in a No-Fly Zone.

Besides the ongoing loss of life, a protracted civil war in Libya could have a number of implications. Libya supplies European countries with significant percentages of their crude oil imports (Ireland 23.3%; Italy, 22%; Switzerland, 18.7%; France 15.7%; Greece, 14.6%); many governments are also worried and prospect of a tidal wave of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Libya. And though Gaddafi's claim that al-Qaeda is leading the revolution is a baseless attempt to de-legitimize a popular uprising, the longer the battle continues, the greater are the chances that it becomes a magnet for violent extremists. That could dilute the very important aspect of the transformational power that the Arab democracy uprisings are having in the region, doing peacefully in a matter of weeks what violent extremists have been unable to do for years: topple secular Arab dictators. But in Libya, people power alone may not be enough.